Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Change is Coming" - or - "Are Bookstores Obsolete?"

There's a lot of panic in the air when it comes to publishing recently, what with announced purchasing freezes (as opposed to unannounced ones, that happen all the time), layoffs, bad news from book retail, and so on.

On one hand, I think it's overblown. Publishing isn't going to go away. Books will still get bought. Books will still get published. It's time for us writers to hunker down, tighten our belts, and keep pushing ahead. It's the people that panic and give up that are going to wash out. I believe that most of the rest of us will get through.

Yes, a lot of dead-wood will be trimmed, poorly performing lines, editors, and authors will find themselves in a difficult situation. But that sort of thing can actually be good for the industry.

On the other hand though, there's a strong counter-sentiment out there that publishing is recession-proof, and nothing will change because of the economy. I'm not so sure about that, and I have a gut feeling that this attitude can be as dangerous in these hard times as panic.

This isn't like the last few economic slumps where publishing has done quite well. It's a different economic, technological, and social environment this time, and I have a feeling that publishing-as-we-know-it will come through the recession radically transformed.

Why so?

Well, first of all, the whole business of book retailing in the United States (and elsewhere, but I know less about that) is in chaos. For years we've been hearing about how smaller independent bookstores are in trouble, pushed out by the chains. But now Borders is on the edge of bankruptcy, and nobody is partying over at Barnes and Noble, so it appears that business model is in trouble too.

Other players like Wal-Mart, Amazon, and eBooks are of increasing importance, but mass-market retailers don't carry the depth of selection needed to support a healthy book industry, and there are plenty of pitfalls before on-line sellers and/or eBooks can become the predominate means of book distribution.

Meanwhile, publishing will suffer as we go through the transition to whatever is coming next. Expect this situation to get better before it gets worse.

The next big problem is that books (and magazines, and newspapers) are an overpriced niche product in an increasingly crowded entertainment environment. In previous economic downturns, entertainment options were limited. Movies were expensive, there was no internet, video games, if they existed at all, were crude and expensive, and television offered limited options.

Now the internet is ubiquitous, video games are sophisticated and offer lots of value, cable and satellite tv offer hundreds of channels, and movies are cheap on DVD, and stream in via the internet and pay-per-view.

Another big difference is that the internet and cable are now considered essentials of life. Facing hard economic choices, people are going to let their cable or internet service slip before they can't pay the rent or electric bill, but not much before. And by the time you've made that hard choice, you aren't likely to head over to Borders for a $30 hard-cover novel, or even a $10 paperback.

Which brings me to pricing. Books are just way, way overpriced for the value they offer. Gone are the days when trashy paperbacks and pulp magazines offered cheap entertainment in an uncrowded competitive environment. Books are expensive to make, expensive to ship, and the return system doesn't make books any cheaper.

Books are also expensive to sell. You can offer a pretty extensive selection of DVDs in maybe thirty feet of wall space, assuming most are displayed spine-out. A video/computer game section might even be smaller, even if it includes some hardware and supports multiple platforms.

In book terms, that's tiny. Maybe it's one genre in a super-store, or a read-and-dash airport newsstand, or a tiny specialty bookstore that doesn't even try to cover all the bases.

I've been saying for years that the disadvantages of print books were overwhelming the advantages, but print has coasted along well past it prime on momentum alone. Now we're in crisis mode, and it isn't clear what happens next.

So, what does happen next? Well, I don't have a crystal ball, but I do have some opinions. Here are the players, and some predictions on what might happen to them.

Independent bookstores: I think the crisis came for the indies a long time, ago, and that ultimately may be good for them. A lot of the weaker stores are already gone, and a lot more won't survive this winter.

But I predict a lot will survive, and the smart ones will do well. Whatever happens to print books at mass market retail, there are still plenty of people who love them and will seek them out. If chain-stores start closing, and that seems likely, book lovers aren't going to find what they need at Wal-mart, and many still love the browsing experience that Amazon doesn't offer. Independent bookstores can position themselves to take up that slack, and it may give them the niche to survive.

Another trend that seems to be happening with independent bookstores is to move into used and antiquarian books, either shelved along-side new books, or exclusively. I can see how, in many respects, it's a great time to be a used book dealer. There's still a world of information and fiction out there that doesn't exist in electronic form, and possibly never will. And a lot of baby boomers are downsizing, retiring, or dying, putting their libraries on the market. There's a flood of good used books out there. It's finding the particular thing you need or want that's hard.

Used booksellers fill that void by finding and concentrating the good stuff, and can back up their retail sales with online sales and auctions. They benefit in that the profit margins on a well-run used book operation can be much higher than the traditionally slim-margin new book business.

That's at best a mixed blessing for publishers and us authors. People reading old books aren't buying new ones, and in a way, used bookstores (and libraries) put us in competition with ourselves. But I suppose anything that keeps people reading can't be entirely bad, and if some stores continue to offer new books, that's good too, especially if offering the used stuff allows them to keep their doors open.

Chain bookstores: These stores aren't going to go away, but expect downsizing and transitions in how they operate. It's a hard time for retail in general, and not just because of the economy. The internet, gas prices, traffic, busy schedules, all are shaking up the ways people shop in general, not just for books.

Already, book superstores are struggling to find a mix of merchandise (of which books and magazines are only a part) that will keep them afloat. The Borders where I shop has DVDs, music, books, magazines, comics, games, toys, novelty items, stationary, gifts, collectibles, calendars, coffee drinks, pastries, and lots more. That sort of diversification has worked for the chains for years, but now it's breaking down, first more music sales, and now movies, are moving to on-line distribution. Those two categories had been major profit centers, propping up stores that less saw themselves as book retailers, and more as entertainment retailers.

Overall, I don't see the outlook here as good, unless the chains can find a new profit center in addition to books. I don't expect chain stores to go away, but I do expect them to become fewer and possibly smaller. It's true, these folks need to learn how to sell books again, but that alone isn't going to keep them afloat.

eBooks: Though it still represents a small portion of book sales, it's one category where publishers are seeing growth in the downturn, and that's getting their attention.

Awareness at publishers is also way up, as most editors in major houses are making extensive use of electronic readers to read submissions, and by most reports, they love it. After years of foot-dragging, publishing finally seems willing to embrace electronic books.

The problem is, nobody knows what form eBook distribution is going to take, what reader platform will predominate, or how a move to eBooks is going to change the form of books themselves. There's huge opportunity here, but also huge risk.

But I think a move to electronic distribution is inevitable, and good. If nothing else, it offers the opportunity to lower book prices to the point where they can be more competitive with other information and entertainment media.

Yes, I still hear lots about how people love books, how nothing looks or smells or feels like a book, and about how books are just better and more convenient than any electronic reader.

But I still think about 90% of that is crap. Yes, many of us love books, have a great deal of nostalgia for books, are even a bit fetishistic about the sensory aspects of books. That offers a niche that will exist for some time, maybe forever. It changes nothing.

Books are too heavy, too bulky, too expensive, too fragile, too inconvenient and poorly designed in a hundred different ways that book-lovers have trained themselves to ignore. They just can't be the predominate means of distribution any more, especially for a (hopefully) new generation of readers.

(By the way, speaking of the next generation, one writer friend of mine is fond of pointing out that she sees young-people routinely reading books on-line, and only then buying physical copies of the books they love. She takes that as proof that young readers still love books in the way us oldsters did.

I'm not so sure. In those cases, I have to wonder if the physical book is being read, or if it's being displayed as a tangible artifact of what they read and like. If so, the book isn't a book, it's a token for a book, and such a token could potentially take many forms. It could be replaced by a collectible plaque, or a button you could attach to a jacket or backpack, or a trading card, or a coin, or an action figure, or a wearable zipper pull, or a picture on a social networking site, or a book-list on a cell-phone that can be wirelessly traded with friends, or who-knows-what.

I have the feeling there are new exciting marketing opportunities there, but that's just one more unknown in the list of many that surround eBook publishing.)

Right now the "big three" in terms of hardware platforms are the Amazon Kindle, the Sony reader, and (surprise, from out of nowhere) the iPhone. The Kindle has an early lead, but I'm keeping a wary eye on the iPhone. The iPhone is pretty poorly suited to being a book-reader, but it has a huge advantage in that it's already an indispensable accessory for millions of people around the world. I'm skeptical that an eBook reader that's only an eBook reader is going to last, in the same way that you almost never see a phone that's just a phone any more.

Actually a problem with both the iPhone, and to a lesser extent, the Kindle, is that they could represent future monopolies in book retailing, the way Apple has an anti-competitive strangle on the music business now.

I'd much prefer that things shake out to a more open model, where readers (and publishers) can choose from a variety of retail sources and hardware suppliers, and where any reader, regardless of what kind of reader they own, will have access to any book from any publisher.

It isn't clear things are going to shake out that way. In fact, at best I'd give it even odds at this point. Apple and Amazon both would be happy with a monopoly, or at least, a dominating closed platform.

It also isn't clear what eBooks mean for the kinds and lengths of books sold. A lot of what a book is has always been defined by the physical format of the book and the mechanics of marketing it. If a book is too long, it's too big, heavy, and expensive to carry around or sell. If it's too short, it isn't cost effective to sell or market. If it's a series or trilogy, the chunks are going to come out in a certain size, at a certain interval.

It opens all sorts of new possibilities, and with them, uncertainties. I'm virtually certain, though, that we'll see new marketing models emerge.

For instance, MP3s all but killed the traditional music album, as people instead bought individual songs. Likewise, eBooks could kill anthologies and the few surviving fiction magazines, possibly replacing them with trusted fiction portals, where people kind find and purchase individual stories from trusted sources.

Some fiction formats, such as the novella, have probably been unnaturally restrained by print formats. Novellas are too short to be marketed effectively as books, but so big that it was difficult for magazines to publish them. Yet this is a natural length for storytelling that has the potential to prosper in several genres, especially science fiction, fantasy, romance, and possibly mystery as well.

ePublishing offers new opportunities for serialized and subscription-based fiction. Could we see a return to something like the pulps, where people subscribe to monthly novellas featuring series characters? Could we see something like the print-versions of soap-operas or telanovelas, where fiction is serialized in a longer, possibly open-ended form? Will eBooks ability to cheaply reproduce art or photos result in new kinds of heavily illustrated books and fiction?

All exciting possibilities. All annoying uncertainties.

eBooks are coming, that's more certain than ever. But it's far less clear what form that market will take, or what it will mean for writers.

Traditional Book Publishers: Again, much chaos ahead, but I don't see traditional publishers as going away. Finding good manuscripts and turning them into published works is still a complex and labor-intensive business. That won't change because of changes in retail or the advent of eBooks.

Yes, an eBook economy may offer new niches for small publishers, start-ups, players like Amazon or Apple who might try to publish the books carried on their platforms, and even self-publication by authors.

I predict we'll see some surprising new players emerge from all this. But I don't think the experience, resources, or brand value of the major publishers can be underestimated. They may look much different when this is all over, but they'll still be here.

To my mind, the important thing for conventional publishers is not to fight change, to remain flexible, and not to get greedy. A lot of experimentation is going to be necessary to find what works and doesn't work in this new publishing environment. They need to be ready, and to embrace this process.

They also need not to get greedy about the profit potential of eBooks. Prices for books must fall in the mass market to remain competitive, and they need to pass a portion of any additional profits along to authors and packagers. Failure to do this last thing will provide incentive to bypass them, either through new publishers, through small press, through self-publishing, or perhaps through new models like author-coops, that haven't even been tried yet.

And despite the inevitable shift, print books aren't going away soon, at least, if publishers play their cards right. One thing I think publishers need to think very seriously about, is to stop thinking about book, eBooks, and maybe even audio books, as separate products.

Compare this to DVD publishers, who have addressed sliding sales by, in many cases, including an electronic copy of the film along with the regular DVD. The purchaser can watch the DVD (and its extras) on a conventional player, a portable player, or even a computer. But they can also load their digital copy onto a variety of portable devices for easy viewing on the go. It's too early to know how effective this model is, but at least they're trying something different. And it's still a way of charging $20-30 for a new-release DVD instead of taking a cut of a $2-5 download.

Likewise, I think it would be a very good idea for book publishers to include a digital copy with, at least, new hardcovers, and possibly trades or even paperbacks. If people want only the digital copy, sell them that, and for less, but offer then a package deal at a price comparable to the printed book alone.

This addresses the younger "token collectors" my writer-friend has pointed out, and plays to the nostalgia value of printed books. A purchaser can read the print book in the tub or sitting in front of their home fireplace, and still have the convenience of reading the electronic copy if they manage to steal a few moments in on a commuter train, in an airport, or in a waiting room. It would give them a greater incentive to buy a hard-cover rather than waiting for a cheaper trade, paperback, or fully-electronic edition. (Another option would be to offer the electronic edition only with the hardcover edition, splitting it out as a separate item only after the paperback is released. Make it worth people's while to buy the hardcover.)

Just as importantly, it keeps traditional booksellers in the loop for some eBook sales, and allows for the kind of hand-selling that indie stores do well, and that isn't available to eBooks. Like I said, the trick is not to get greedy and try and sell the package for as much as the print and eBook editions would cost. If it costs anything extra at all, there should be a very substantial discount.

Audio-books, in file rather than CD or DVD format, can also be part of a "value-added, high convenience, high-flexibility" package that may be more attractive to readers than stand alone books.

Publishers may also want to consider adding other extras in the package, in the way extra features are offered on DVDs. This might include bonus short-fiction, photos, author interviews (audio or video), author readings from the text, and even documentaries for high-profile books.

No mix of publishing formats or materials should be ignored until the publishers find a new model that works and pushes books back into a sales and profit growth curve, for themselves, and their authors.

On-line sellers: This another growth area, at least for 500-pound gorilla Amazon, which is well positioned no matter how the shake-out of print vs. electronic editions goes. On-line sales are going to increasingly cut into the sales through traditional bookstores, large and small.

But there are still niches here. Amazon still hasn't replicated the browsing and social experience of visiting a bookstore, and given that their focus is increasingly on other areas of retailing, that doesn't seem to be a priority for them.

In the near term, that's a bonus for traditional bookstores, but it also might create opportunities for an innovative on-line competitor to Amazon. In particular, I think there's a huge opportunity for the first company to seamlessly combine the reading, book-purchasing experience with social networking sites and with Twitter-like phone services. Young people don't see reading as the solitary experience many of us baby-boomers grew up with. (To some extent, they don't see any aspect of their lives as solitary experiences.) There's a huge market there for the first company that figures out how to tap it.

What this means for authors:
There are some hard and uncertain times ahead.

Ahead? Hell, they're here.

But it isn't all bad news, especially for those authors who are flexible and open minded enough to try new things.

Continue to write novels and books and market them as you always have. But keep your eyes open and your ear to the ground for new trends. Don't be afraid to take some risks and try new things. Yes, most of them will fail, but you could also be catching the wave of the Next Big Trend.

I'd also recommend that, if you haven't written short fiction, or haven't used those muscles in a while, it's time to polish your skills. I think eBooks will create new opportunities for shorter-form and serialized fiction, and the authors who are able to move into those areas stand to benefit.

Also be prepared for changes in how you have to market your fiction. Book tours and press appearances are being replaced by web sites, chats, forums, social-networking sites, podcasts and YouTube videos. Publishers increasingly expect these things of their authors, and I don't see that trend going away. Quite the contrary.

But this can be good for your sales, and offers opportunities for the author to cross-market their works, and make money from selling other merchandise. While the profit margins aren't great, the tools are out there to do these things without creating a huge distraction from writing, which should always be the author's primary focus. In this environment, any potential revenue stream is nothing to sneeze at.

Things are changing, and there's much uncertainty ahead. But (Star Trek geek alert) there's an old Ferengi saying that goes something like this, "even in hard times, somebody is making a profit."

I couldn't agree more.

Are you ready?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

More on self-publishing

As fate would have it, days after the recent posts by Chris and I on the problems with vanity publishing, I spotted this post on self-publishing by CNET writer David Carnoy. It's especially interesting in that he's self-published his own novel, a thriller.

Though I disagree with his article on several points, it's well written, and far more balanced that most pro-self-publishing articles you're read. Carnoy seems to have gone into self-publishing with his eyes open, and without the unreasonable expectations that seem to trap most self/vanity publishers. It also deals more with new models of self-publishing such as print-on-demand (known as POD in the industry), something that Chris and I really didn't touch on. So it's certainly worth a look if you're interested in the subject, and then come back here some comments. I'll wait.

Okay, let's continue.

As I said, Chris and I didn't break out print-on-demand or e-publishing schemes in our discussions, in part because we were responding to an article about what appears to be a traditional vanity press, and also because we're skeptical of all self-publishing schemes on principle, POD, vanity, or whatever.

But if you still feel compelled to go this route, there are important differences, and such forms of publishing do offer some advantages. At the very least, they don't lock you into a print-run of physical books that you need to store and (hopefully) ship or distribute. They reduce some of the up-front costs (though as Carnoy discovered, turning a manuscript into a professional quality book isn't quick, easy, or cheap). Carnoy's article has some useful information on these differences.

What we also left out of our posts is that there's a world of difference between a non-fiction book and a novel. In my opinion, the chances of a self-published non-fiction book becoming a commercial success are slim, but the chances of a self-published novel are nearly nil. With the right subject matter, the right title, the right hook, it's much easier to hook a buyer than with a novel from an unknown. Not only is it difficult to create a fiction premise that sells itself, reducing that premise to a cover blurb or a marketing slogan is an art-form in itself, one completely beyond the reach of most self-publishers (and to be honest, most of the people they might hire to do the job for them).

But let's go over the article point-by-point. Carnoy has enumerated his major points in a list of "25 things you should know," so we'll follow his template. We'll talk about some of the areas where I agree or disagree with the article's conclusions, and add some speculations where I think Carnoy has gone wrong (and right) on his path to self-publishing.

1. Self-publishing is easy.

No, as Carnoy himself concludes elsewhere in the article, self-printing is easy. Self-publishing a professional quality book is hard.

2. Quality has improved.

Quite correct. Print-on-demand systems have come a long way, and now produce books nearly on-par with traditional (vanity and otherwise) publishing system. But as Carnoy discovered, having something that looks like a professional book doesn't mean it is a professional book, or that it will be treated like one by reviewers, publishers, and booksellers. The nice results just make it easier for self-publishers to fall into that trap, and set themselves up for, at best disappointment, and possibly complete failure.

3. Some of the more successful self-published books are about self-publishing.

An astute observation, and a telling one. This was about the point where I decided Carnoy's article would actually be worth reading.

What this reminds me of is the old scam of ads reading, "Find out how to make BIG MONEY, no work, from your own home! Send $5 to XXXXX" And if you respond, you get a letter telling you, "First, place an ad in the newspaper reading: 'Find out how to make BIG MONEY...'"

It doesn't mean other types of self-published books can't sell. It just means that selling books is hard, and they don't sell themselves.

4. Good self-published books are few and far between.

Another astute observation, and very true. Most self-published and vanity press books are amateurish dreck. And what that means is that, no matter how good, how professionally prepared your book is, it will be judged by the lowest standards of that dreck.

It isn't that major publishers don't publish plenty of bad books too. But at least they're bad books prepared to certain professional standards, backed up with at least some minimal bit of marketing and the cachet of a brand-name on the spine.

I know plenty of booksellers (good company for writers to keep, don't you know) and they all tell stories about self-publishers who wander into their stores and introduce themselves. "Hi, I'm an author with a new book out."

Most booksellers are glad to meet authors, so this usually generates a positive reception. But at some point, often no more than a sentence or two into the conversation, though sometimes longer, the bookseller learns the truth. And as a rule, the reception cools, to a degree depending on the kindness and patience of the bookseller. At best, the bookseller will usually stop listening, and withdraw to some deep, happy recess of their mind, the place were torture victims go to survive.

Yes, your book may be wonderful, but don't count on convincing a conventional bookseller of that unless they're an immediate family member.

6. Creating a "professional" book is really hard.

Amen to this. As I said, there's a big difference between "printing" and "publishing," Carnoy states that he's spent around $5000 on his book so far, and I don't find that sum shocking, if he pulled in professional editing, graphic design and art skills.

Keep that in mind when you're marketing your book to publishers. What they're putting on the line in buying your book is always far more than whatever they're offering for an advance.

7. Have a clear goal for your book.

What Carnoy talks about here is, essentially, minimizing the damage. If the goal is simply to hold a book with your name on it in your hands, rather than selling a truck-load to others, you may not need to blow your life savings.

I'd add to what he said that, if you'd really like to leave something to family posterity, a hand-written ledger or hand-crafted scrapbook is more likely to be appreciated than a slickly printed paperback. Your great grand kids are only a little more likely to be impressed by that self-published book than the fore mentioned booksellers.

8. Even if it's great, there's a good chance your book won't sell.

I've already beat this horse pretty thoroughly. Books don't sell themselves, and selling books is hard, even if they're good.

(By the way, one point about self-marketing that Carnoy ironically doesn't make, is that your best chance for marketing your self-published book may be to exploit an established audience or reputation already at your disposal and use that to make people aware of your book. Which is exactly what his article does.

This isn't a criticism. Kudos to him.)

9. Niche books do best.

This applies mostly to non-fiction, but it's absolutely true. If you're an expert in some specialized area with a small but enthusiastic interest group, and you can communicate well, there might be an opening for you. A self-published book can be termed successful with a much smaller print run, sold over a much longer period of time, than would be possible for a commercial publisher.

But I suspect this isn't as true as it once was, ironically, because of technology. Much of the information once only communicated by word-of-mouth or through niche books, magazines, and newsletters is now available on the internet.

In fact, if you have a good niche in mind, you may well be smarter to start a web-site or on-line forum than trying to publish a book. The up-front costs are often smaller, the profits (from advertising or sales of associated merchandise) while small may start to trickle sooner, and you can evolve and grow it over time.

Many people have even used successful niche web-sites to (surprise!) leverage the launch of self-published books.

10. Buy your own ISBN--and create your own publishing house.

This is another annoying up-front cost, but if you have any hope of all of getting into bookstores or getting reviewed, this is probably a necessity. The bad news: you probably still won't get into major bookstores or get reviewed anywhere that counts.

11. Create a unique title.

Carnoy's point here is that you need something easy to search on Amazon or on search engines, and that's a valid point.

But there's a lot more to titles than searchability. A title is a sales tool. It's often the potential buyer's first contact with your book, and in most cases, their last and only contact. Unless you can interest them with the title, they probably won't read your cover copy, or blurbs, or listen to the radio interview you've been struggling for months to line up, or engage with you or the book in any other meaningful way.

Good titles are hard. You have to tell, in as few words as possible, what the book is, who should be interested in it, and why they should care. On a professionally published book, the title usually has a lot of marketing backing it up, as well as open doors to reviewers and booksellers. It's important, but the whole book isn't hanging on the title. (Carnoy's title for his thriller, by the way, is "Knife Music," which is a pretty darned good title for a novel from a major publisher. For a self published novel though, it's a mixed bag. For starters, while it's memorable and evocative, it's also ambiguous. It could be a thriller, yes, or a horror novel, or a It could also be a non-fiction true-crime book, or one about music, or knives, or martial arts, or even a cookbook. One moment, one millisecond of confusion or indecision is all it takes for a potential reader to pass the book by.)

12. Turn-key solutions cost a lot of money.

What Carnoy is talking about here is more traditional vanity-publishers, while he's advocating a more do-it-yourself, be-your-own-general-contractor approach. As far as it goes, I agree with him. My trust of companies who make most of their money printing unsalable books is very, very, low. If they really thought these books could be successful, why aren't they offering better deals for a cut of the profits? Why aren't they just buying the rights up-front and being a real publisher? In my opinion, it's because this is easier. It's because they make money, even if everything is done poorly, and because they know that even if everything was done right, there would still be no profits to split.

On the other hand, doing it yourself, even when contracting out the hard parts, requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades, and to make a bunch of critical decisions, the failure of even one of which could doom your book. Greater potential to get things right, but greater potential to screw it up royally too.

13. Self-publishers don't care if your book is successful.

Here is this section, in total: "They say they care, but they really don't care. You have to make them care." By "they" I assume he means the people offering self-publishing services, and if so, he's correct. But he's wrong about the "make them care" part. Don't worry if they care. Nobody cares about your self-published book but you. Conventional publishers care, at least a little, because they have more of a financial stake in the book than you do.

But in the self-publishing world, everyone else is just somebody you've hired to do a job. You have to make sure they do it, do it well, and give good value for your money. Asking them to care is like asking a prostitute to love you. It only proves that you don't understand the nature of the transaction.

15. If you're serious about your book, hire a book doctor and get it copy-edited.

Most of what follows this point is correct, but I'm put off by the use of the term "book doctor." Many, many people who advertise themselves as book doctors are, themselves failed writers, or (maybe worse) academics who wouldn't recognize a commercial book if they saw it, and would probably hold it in contempt if they did. Convoy talks about hiring someone who has editing experience with real publishers, and that's, ideally, what you need.

Yes, some people like that offer their services as "book doctors," but the term, to my mind, borders on an insult. What you need a freelance editor with credentials. A good one. That may not be easy to do, and it may not be cheap.

And keep in mind that even the best editor can't polish a turd. If your book sucks, an editor won't fix it. If it's good but flawed in some fundamental way, an editor may not be able to fix that either. They may be able to point you in the direction of fixing it yourself. They may be able to tell you how to avoid the pitfall in your next book. (You are writing a next book, right?) But at some point, if the book can be fixed at all, it isn't editing, it's collaboration.

16. Negotiate everything.

Personally, I rarely have the stomach or the nerve to do this, but in most all things in life, these are words to live by.

17. Ask a lot of questions and don't be afraid to complain.

Again, this is just generally good advice.

18. Self-publishing is a contact sport.

We're back to the point that books don't sell themselves. I don't know what this "buy X get Y" program he's talking about is, but a self-publisher has to be prepared to do a lot more to market his book than one thing. And they should resign themselves that any "turnkey solution" is probably wasted money. In fact, they should be prepared to do most of the heavy lifting (and spending) of a multi-pronged marketing campaign.

To put this in perspective, according to an essay I just read in the New York Times, more than 250,000 new titles and editions are published in the United States each year. Think about it. If you'd never heard of you or your self-published book, how likely is it that any grass-roots effort is going to bring that book or its author to your attention? You're just one flake in a snowstorm, shouting into the wind, "pick me! Pick me!"

19. Getting your book in bookstores sounds good, but that shouldn't be a real concern.

I don't find much to disagree with here. It's possible you can seduce some local bookstore to become an enthusiastic hand-seller of your book. In that case, write off the low royalty return to publicity. But don't count on it. And pay special attention to the "no returns" policies he mentions. Bookstores have to take a risk, money out of their pockets, in stocking your book that they don't in stocking the latest James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Why on Earth would they chose you?

20. Self-published books don't get reviewed.

True, but maybe not as important as he thinks. Below a certain level, reviews just don't have the commercial value they once had. Getting a positive review in some publications may get you noticed by libraries or independent bookstores, but they're only one part, maybe a vanishingly-small part, of getting your book noticed by the public.

21. Design your book cover to look good small.

This goes with number eleven about titles. It applies to on-line sales, and is good as far as it goes. But there's obviously a lot more to covers than that.

One of the arguments used by the vanity publisher, in the article that set Chris and I off last week, was that the author had no control over their cover. My response to that is, What makes you think you know the first thing about book covers? You may, may be able to recognize a really terrible one. (I'm reminded of the featureless, black "Smell the Glove" album cover from the classic movie "This is Spinal Tap.") But designing a book cover that sells is an art-form that people spend decades learning and perfecting.

You don't know squat, and probably neither does the guy at the art student, or the local graphic art or advertising firm you hire to design yours.

22. If you're selling online, make the most out of your Amazon page.

More reasonable advice on on-line selling and marketing. Given that Carnoy writes about tech stuff for CNET, it isn't surprising this is where he gets things most right. (Even authors published through conventional publishers might pick up some ideas here.) And he's right that Amazon (and other on-line sellers, but mostly Amazon) is increasingly important to book sales. And on-line sellers are one place where a self-published book has a chance to compete on even a vaguely level playing field.

23. Pricing is a serious challenge.

Again, this seems solid. There also some advice on leveraging the Amazon affiliate program to increase author profits that could work for conventionally published authors as well. It might not amount to much, but every little bit helps.

24. Electronic books have potential, but they're still in their infancy.

Again, solid. Even conventional publishers are still trying to figure out how to make money off ebooks.

On the other hand, for future reference, keep in mind that ebooks are about the only growth area in conventional publishing at the moment, and they will become important. How this figures into self-publishing isn't clear though. The lack of the physical package, or the simple ability to discover a book while browsing in a store, it may make the "branding" of a major publisher more important, not less.

My bet is still on the people who have been making money at publishing all along.

25. Self-publishing is a fluid business.

True, as far as the technology goes. But there's one constant that runs through the whole history of self-publishing and vanity presses. The vast majority of such books are expensive failures that never find an audience.

Given that simple fact, you've got to ask yourself if the time, effort, and money wouldn't be better spent improving your book and working harder to get it published through conventional means, or more likely, writing more, better books that will sell.

Here's another important, secret fact about publishing. Of first books by successful authors that sell (and many do), many didn't sell first.

Let me explain that a little more. A first book, like any first effort anything, is likely to have flaws. Even if it's good, plenty of good books don't sell for any number of reasons. Maybe the topic is overdone, or hard for the marketing people to sell, or maybe it just isn't commercial enough.

Just for an example, take mega-best-selling author Ken Follett. His first novel was his most successful, "The Pillars of the Earth."

But it wasn't his first published book. Publishers balked at the huge novel, a sprawling, generational, historical about a seemingly unsexy subject (the construction of cathedrals) where the only central character is the building itself.

Did that mean the book was bad? To the contrary. But it wasn't safe, conventional, or based on something else with demonstrated success.

So Ken Follett self-published it and sold a billion copies.


He put it aside and used his considerable skills to write more conventional thrillers like "The Eye of the Needle" and "The Key to Rebbecca."

Only after these books were successful was he able to convince them to take a chance on "Pillars" to tremendous success.

I've heard this story over and over again, from writers big and small. The first novel doesn't sell until after the second of third novel sells. Until after the writer has the track-record and the clout to make it happen.

Now keep in mind, in many cases, the first book still wasn't a success. Often there were still flaws or marketing issues that made it a hard-sell to readers. Sometimes, the publisher still didn't understand or want the book, and did it only to humor the successful author.

But even the-least successful commercially-published book is going to outsell 95% (and I think I'm being very conservative with that estimate) of the self-published books ever produced.

Those first books, where the author had the patience and the determination to see them through the process, found an audience, no matter how small. Most self-published books never come close.

Ultimately, as an author, what you want (or should want, in my opinion), is not to be printed, and not even to be published. You want to be read.

Or maybe you just want money, but if you've done things right, that just comes naturally with being read. Win-win. Most self-published books don't make money (quite the contrary) and they don't get read. Where's the upside in that?

Which brings me to:

4 Reasons David Carnoy Probably Shouldn't have Self-Published

Now, keep in mind that I don't know all the specifics of his experience or his situation. I have only the details he chose to share in his article, as he chose to share them. And I certainly haven't read his book. I base my opinions on what I could glean or extrapolate from what he said, and on some rather broad assumptions I make based on my own experiences and knowledge of the publishing industry. Given that, here we go...

1. It might have sold if he'd just written the next book.

See my example of Follett above. Mr. Carnoy obviously put a lot of money, time, and effort into self-publishing his novel. Could have have translated that into a second novel, or even a third? He doesn't mention any follow-up writing at all.

Here's one more little secret fact about publishing. Publishers are less interested in individual books than in careers. This is especially true of novels. They don't want a writer with one good novel. They want a writer with one good novel and the ability (at least the strong promise) to turn out more on a regular basis.

I recently heard an interview with a writer I've recently come to enjoy, New York Times Best-selling crime writer Tim Dorsey. Dorsey was, like Carnoy, a journalist who put several years into writing a novel.

Things diverge in that he got a publisher interested in that first book. But things are the same in that, Dorsey hadn't even thought of writing a second novel. So he was shocked when the book sold as part of a two-book deal. He had to quickly write a prequel to his first book, because he'd killed off most of his characters in book one! (Find his discussion of this point just after the three-minute mark in the YouTube video.)

The publisher didn't see that first book as marketable. They saw Dorsey as a marketable writer, and in that, they were obviously correct.

2. I doubt he exhausted all possible avenues to sell the book to conventional publishers.

Okay, I confess that I'm way into speculative territory with this one.

According to Carnoy he got a "top agent" on the job, and I'll take him as his word.

But speaking as someone who recently let go a "top agent" (by at least one measure, the top agent in the industry right now) because they weren't doing enough to market my original work, a "top agent" isn't always what you need.

It's like looking for a spouse. You might want the most beautiful person on the planet, or the smartest, or the most powerful. But that doesn't mean that's what you need. You might discover that being an average schmo being married to Angelina Jolie, or Hugh Jackman, or Stephen Hawking, or George W. Bush, it might just have a down-side. It might not work out. It might not last long at all. It might cause you a boat-load of grief and pain along the way.

What you want is somebody compatible, even if they aren't quite as beautiful to behold, or smart, or powerful. What you need is somebody who's a good fit with you. That's where 70th wedding anniversaries are made.

Maybe that still means a top agent, but maybe not. Top Agents are top agents because they are specialists at big books and big deals. Maybe that's not what you need a this stage in your career.

A "top agent" probably is only interested in you if you are, or they think you can be, a "top author." As a first-time author, they may not work as hard for you, give you the individual attention you need, or keep trying as long as a lower-tier agent would. Maybe you need someone who will put your book on the desk of every editor in New York, not just the desks of five VPs at the biggest publishing imprints on the planet.

Or maybe the agent isn't interested in a deal below a certain level. Maybe you'd be thrilled with a five-figure deal, and the agent really can't (quite reasonably, they're a top agent after all) be bothered with anything less than six figures. (And keep in mind that even a three-figure deal is still way better than the negative five-figure or more deal that most self-publishing projects turn into.)

Or maybe, no make this for certain, a "top agent" is going to have bigger fish to fry than you. They've got top clients, best-sellers who are always going to be their first priority. No matter how much they may like you, no matter how sincere their interest, there are going to be times, maybe lots of times, when little clients like you fall between the cracks. Fact of life.

3. Maybe the book didn't sell because it SHOULDN'T have sold.

Like I said, I haven't read the book. And it's just possible that is sucks.

I rather doubt that though, since a high-level agent apparently took it on. I'm guessing that it's at least a competent book with some gleam of specialness that separates it from the pack.

But it's possible that there's some flaw that the agent overlooked. Maybe the "gleam" is just something that pushed their hot-buttons, that wouldn't register with anyone else on the planet.

Really, it's entirely possible that the book is fine. Lots of fine books don't get bought (or at least, bought immediately) for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the book.

But many, maybe most, first novels aren't fine. Mistakes are made. Maybe the plot is great, but the prose sucks. Maybe prose is beautiful, but there's a tragic plot-flaw that just can't be fixed. Maybe the plot and the prose are great, but the characters are flat. Maybe everything is great, but commercial publishing isn't ready for a 2000-page space western written from the viewpoint of a gall-stone, no matter how well executed.

On the other hand, maybe if he'd simply moved on and written the next book, Mr. Carnoy would have learned things in the process (writing novels requires practice, like any other craft). Maybe he'd have learned enough to spot that one, fatal flaw in the first book, and fix it, and sell it.
Maybe he'd develop the understanding to realize how embarrassingly flawed his first effort was, and how it's better sitting at the bottom of a drawer for his biographers to figure out.

In either case, he's better off in the long run.

4. Even, in the unlikely instance that the book is successful in its self-published form, it proves nothing.

As I said in my previous post on vanity publishing, there are counter-examples of self-published and vanity press books that went on to great success. But I'm of the opinion that those were mostly books that could have seen equal or greater success if the author had simple made more (or more effective) efforts to sell the manuscript, or if they'd (as in the Follett example) kept writing and let the momentum of their career pull that first book into print.

If you read the fine print, most major "self-publishing" success stories actually made most (if not all) of their money only when they were picked up by a conventional publisher. The "self-publishing" stage only created enough success to bring them to the attention of the publishers, or to convince them that the book reached a market they didn't know existed.

As I said, there are other, probably more cost-effective ways of marketing a "problem" book. Most of these involve writing the next book, of course, but that's the thing that's going to develop your career, your reputation, and your abilities as a writer.

And isn't that what you want?

(I've beaten on Mr. Carnoy pretty hard in this post, and if he takes any notice of it at all, I hope he can be a good sport about it and take it in the constructive spirit that it was intended. I wish him all success with his book, and hope it's one of the exceptions that makes the rule. The very least I can do is offer him plug. You can order his novel "Knife Music" on Amazon here. Or better yet, order it through his web page and give him an extra cut.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Vanity isn't Easy

There was a rather annoying article in one of our local papers the other day: a rather glowing profile on a vanity publisher.

Now, if you don't know what a vanity press is, it's a publisher that will, for a (often sizable) fee turn your manuscript into a printed book.

Such presses can take slightly different forms at this point.. They may (usually for yet another fee) pretend to market your book.

More likely, they'll simply deliver a pallet of books to sit in your garage while you try unsuccessfully to pawn them off on local bookstores, until finally you give them away to every friend and relative on every birthday and Christmas, leaving the bulk of them as a white elephant for your estate to dispose of at the local landfill.

Oh, come on, Steve! Tell us what you really think!

Okay, perhaps my usual level of contempt for self-publishing is a bit pumped up by the article, which was full of myths, distortions, misinformation, unquestioned self-promotion, and generally suffered from a complete lack of basic fact-checking. (For example, it went unchallenged that conventional publishers take ownership of the copyrights on books they buy. You'd think that newspapers would know at least the barest essentials of copyright law, but I guess not.)

But for the purposes of this rant, I'm going to push all the misinformation aside and deal with a couple of things the article (and the vanity publisher) got right.

One fact that the publisher used in support of using their service was that getting a book sold to a conventional publisher is hard.

This is true. It is very, very true. (Speaking as someone who's currently trying to turn a string of well-received media tie-in novels into an original novel career, I can speak to this personally.) It's hard. It takes time. The deck is stacked against you, and a lot of the publishing process exists primarily to keep the flood of dreck out, sometimes keeping good books and writers out in the process.

What's wrong is that this is any reason for an aspiring writer to turn to self-publishing and vanity presses. If it bothers you, and it probably does, I've got two words for you.



Like many things worth doing, getting a book published is work. It requires patience, resilience, and determination. And despite all this (and this is what the vanity publishers don't tell you), it beats the alternative.

Okay, early on I told you what self-publishing is, but now I will give you the precise definition of self-publishing: A process by which, through the application of large amounts of money, an unsold manuscript can be transformed into a large quantity of unsold books.

There's the ugly truth of it. If selling your book to a legitimate publisher is too too hard for you, then going to a vanity press won't solve your problem, it will multiply it.

Yes, for only a few (maybe quite a few) thousand dollars you can expand a hundred-fold your opportunities for rejection, abuse, disappointment, and perceived failure! But wait, there's more! We'll throw on a huge distraction from your writing, and a tangible monument to your inadequacy that can squat in your garage, basement, closet or unit at the Mini-Storage for decades to come!

Where's the logic here? Getting a job is hard too. Does that mean that if you can't get a job as a dish-washer, you open a restaurant? If you like to fly, do you start an airline?

Of course not. It's obvious that these enterprises are expensive, time-consuming, risky, and highly prone to total failure, and that to manage one takes a skill-set completely separate from those possessed by most of the people it employs. You start an airline because you want to start an airline, not because you think it's a shortcut to getting some time in the cockpit.

Why then do so many would-be writers think they should start a publishing company? I can't tell you. If you have the skills and desire to be a manager, a salesperson, a marketer, a warehouse manager, a shipper, a bookkeeper, and you'd rather do those things than write, then maybe a writer is not what you want to be. Maybe you should start a business. (I wouldn't recommend publishing though. There are easier ways to make money.)

Writers write. That should be obvious.

Being a writer already is a business anyway, one that will, as you become more successful, take far more time and energy from your writing than you want. If you are a writer who has time to run a second (publishing) business, then it's a good sign that you aren't very successful as a writer (and probably as a publisher too).

It's that simple. That should be the end of it, and we should never speak of this thing again.


The whole vanity publishing thing is like Dracula. You think you've got it staked real good, and it just keeps popping out of the grave. It doesn't help that every now and then you hear (usually a lot, because it makes a good story) about the exceptions to the rule, the self-published books that went on to great success, that were picked up by major publishers, and in a few cases, even turned into New York Times best-sellers.

I shake my head every time I hear one of these, because they are rare exceptions, because most of them would have sold through conventional means if the author had only been a little smarter about it, and because I know it's the nature of would-be writers to treat any crumb of false-hope like the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Rio.

Just because somebody won 40 million in the Powerball doesn't mean you should invest your life savings in lottery tickets.

Yes, selling is hard.

Buck it up, keep writing, and keep the manuscripts in the mail.

It's easier that way.

(Postscript: Chris just wrote her own blog post covering some different aspects of this same issue. Read her "No Hope Publishing Plan" here.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Tale of the Ackerfish

If you haven't heard, the broad field of science fiction and fantasy lost a legendary figure last week: Forrest J. Ackerman, perhaps best known as the editor of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine, and as one of the world's foremost collectors of science fiction, fantasy and horror memorabilia.

Those things are only a little of what Forrey was, and what he meant to our genres. In his time, he was a writer, editor, literary agent (for many major writers, including L. Ron Hubbard), and translator (bringing the countless Perry Rodan books to the United States). He coined the dreaded term "sci-fi." He's reportedly the first person to wear a costume to a science fiction convention, giving launch to every cosplayer on the planet.

Okay, it starts to become clear why Forrey was to some, as infamous as he was famous. But his importance to the history of the sf/fantasy/horror genres, both in print and film, can't be overstated.

And what made Forrey great wasn't all the professional things he did in the field, really. It was that, through it all, Forrey was a fan. An uber-fan. The god-king-500-pound gorilla-high-wizard-United-Federation-of-Nerdery-atomic-supreme-Dalek of fans.

He did fannish things, only on a scale comparable with the pyramids. Fans have collections of book, or comics, or toys. Forry had the "Ackermansion" a home jammed with a massive collection of books, pulps, posters, and original film props, masks, models and costumes. Fans write fanzines. Forrey (in 1958) started "Famous Monsters of Filmland," a newsstand publication jammed with pictures and writing about genre films (mostly horror and fantasy, but a smattering of science fiction as well).

It was through Famous Monsters of Filmland that Forrey entered my life, as I discovered it hidden in the back of magazine rack of a little drugstore in Geneva, Alabama. I flipped through its pages, wide-eyed at creatures, sights, wonders and horrors, most of which were completely alien to me.

It's impossible for anyone born after the 70s to understand what this magazine meant to a generation. If you want to find out about films, or see them, it's easy. You've got cable, DVDs, the internet, pay-per-view, satellite, a zillion ways to access them.

But Famous Monsters of Filmland came along at a time before the internet. Before DVDs, or VHS, or even Beta. It was before Cable. It was at a time when television often meant a tiny, blurry, black and white picture selected from no more than an handful of channels, and in most areas, far less.

If you missed a movie in the theaters, you missed it, unless it eventually ran on TV, jammed full of commercials and cut to shreds by the censors. And I missed a lot of genre movies as a kid. Pretty much all of them, as a matter of a fact.

I lived in a tiny Alabama town, barely more than a wide spot in the road. I was miles (which might as well have been light-years) from the nearest theaters. On rare occasions I'd go to a movie with my family, or with family friend and sometimes baby-sitter Linda Miller (hi, Linda!), but rarely did I get to see the space-ships and monsters that I craved.

So Famous Monsters of Filmland was a window on a world I only barely knew existed, films I knew mainly through tiny ads in the monthly schedules that the local drive-ins printed and distributed everywhere. From those schedules I had only titles, and maybe a tiny picture of slogan to go with it.

In the pages of FMOF I could see pictures and read about the plots, special effects, and actors. I became obsessed with some of the images I saw there, and waited patiently until the movies that spawned them showed up on TV in some late-night or Saturday-afternoon time-slot. I might have eventually seen those films anyway, but FMOF told me what to look for, which films might be worth fighting my parents to stay up late or missing a sunny Saturday afternoon's playtime to watch TV.

It's certainly not the only thing that fanned my interest in science fiction and fantasy, but it was a major early influence on me.

Ironically, I don't think I bought many actual issues of the magazine. Maybe I preferred to spend my money on the comic spinner rack next to the magazines. Or maybe it was just that my mom considered the magazine to lurid and scary and discouraged me from buying it. I really don't remember. But I'd always pick it up off the rack and flip through it when the druggist wasn't looking. ("This isn't a library!")

My interest in FMOF waned after a few years. We moved to bigger towns where I had better access to theaters, and often more TV channels (some of them those wonderful independent stations that tended to cram their schedules with old movies). I got older, became more independent, and was able to stay up to catch the late-shows where genre films often played. But Famous Monsters of Filmland played a critical role in priming my interest.

I wasn't alone. A whole generation of people like me were also reading the magazine. Some, like me, went on to become writers. Others became makeup artists, prop-builders, costumers, and film directors. Out of its lurid covers and pulpy black-and-white pages came an army of genre creators, who unleashed countless pop-culture wonders and terrors upon the world.

Flash forward thirty years ago. I'm a struggling but published writer of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, attending conventions to chase editors, make contacts, and learn my craft. My wife Chris and I are at a Westercon in Seattle, where we're approached by our friend, con-runner Richard Wright (who we sadly also lost a few years back). He asks if we'd like to attend the Locus Awards banquet. The convention has had to buy a minimum number of banquet tickets, and there are extras. Would we like a pair for free?

Starving writers don't turn down free food (even rubber chicken), and we gratefully accepted. We also figured we might make some contacts.

We didn't know many people in the field back in those days, and the few people we did know were sitting at already-full tables, so we got a table by ourselves. I'd seen Forrey's picture many times, and I knew he was at the convention, but until that point in time, I hadn't seen him. So I recognized him when he walked in late, accompanied by another old-time fan (whose name now unfortunately escapes me). They looked around for some place to sit, and we asked if they'd like to join us. Maybe to my surprise, they did.

I don't remember a lot of specifics about the banquet, but Forrey was charming, friendly, and talkative. We quite enjoyed their company, and I was a bit dazzled to be sitting across the table from someone who had so influenced my youth.

But one thing I'll never forget about the banquet were the table decorations. For reasons that escape me, the place-settings consisted of some kind of beach/luau kitsch, and at the end, we were encouraged to take anything we wanted as with us. At our table we all laughed about that, as we'd spent a good deal of time making fun of it all. There was certainly nothing there that any of us wanted.

But then, I had an inspiration. I'd not thought to bring a camera, so I couldn't get a picture with Forrey, but there was a way I could get a remembrance. I grabbed a cheap, ceramic fish from the centerpiece, held it out and said, "Forrey, will you sign my fish?"

He stared at it, puzzled, then laughed and took it. We found a ball-point pen somewhere, but it wouldn't write on the glazed part of the fish. Forrey turned it over and signed it on the unglazed bottom.

We've carried that fish around for years, through multiple moves, two states and three cities. It's usually been on display somewhere in our house, an incongruous item amid all the books, comics and sci-fi toys. I drew attention to itself. Visitors would ask why we had that ugly little thing, and I'd always pick it up, turn it over, and tell them the story.

When I learned of Forrey's death, it was in my living-room, sitting on a bookshelf. I knew exactly where to find it. The Ackerfish.

Some day, when we're old and gone, I imagine our our kids will be going through our stuff, and they'll see this ugly little fish, and maybe they'll throw it away without a second thought. But I hope not. It's an artifact. A link with an important bit of history that shouldn't be forgotten.

It's appropriate, somehow, that of Forrey Ackerman, collector, keeper of things, curator of whole genres, I have an object, an artifact to remember him by.

Goodbye, Forrey, and thanks for the fish.

Monday, November 10, 2008

More on book returns

As a follow-up to my recent post on how book-returns may be a necessary evil if you value independent bookstores, here's a great post from an industry-insider on the dark flip-side the equation. Returns are hurting publishers in a big way during the credit crunch, and it's behind a lot of the dire financial news you're hearing about publishing companies at the moment.

Ignoring my arguments about how they benefit indie booksellers, it's otherwise hard not to conclude that the return system is insane. But it isn't likely to go away, or even be substantially modified, any time soon. There are lots of reasons, but here are the big two:

For any one publisher to modify or eliminate the return system would be suicide for that publisher. Buyers, especially the 500-pound gorillas of retail, would simply stop ordering.

But for all, or even several of the publishers to change the terms in lockstep would undoubtedly cause anti-trust laws to kick in.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Loved to Death (or, why book-lovers don't always make great book-sellers)

We'll get to the meat of this post in a minute. First, some background material authors, would-be authors and book-lovers should be aware of...

I've just been reading a fascinating post over on the blog of Andrew Wheeler, a 20-year publishing professional who should know his stuff.

His post is prompted by the outrage several science fiction and fantasy authors about having their recent books "skipped" by chain bookstores. Apparently there was some talk of a boycott, but that seems to have gone nowhere so far. Probably a good thing.

Anyway, that's the start of Wheeler's post, but he goes way beyond that. He explains, in painful-but-necessary detail the realities of the book business. How and why books get ordered (or don't get ordered), and why there are some sound reasons for "skipping." He also talks about the flawed nostalgia that always clouds such discussions of business; the days when books were all good, bookstores were all small and independent, and good authors (was there any other kind?) were carefully sold, nurtured, and rewarded.

And that's where my post begins. Wheeler talks at length about the many shortcomings common to indie bookstores, and why many of them deserved to die. Many are (or were) poorly managed, under-funded, dirty, disorganized, stocked only to suit their owner's peculiar tastes and interests. I can't disagree with much of what he says.. We'll all been in great indie bookstores, but we've been in the clunkers too.

But he doesn't address another kind of doomed bookstore, one I've had the sad experience to observe closely in recent years here in my town: the Store That Loved Books Too Much.

We used to have a great little indie store in the town where I live. It's a beach-resort town, and so I became familiar with the store long before I moved here. In fact, though I lived in a much larger college town with some pretty good (chain and indie) bookstores, I always looked forward to visiting this one. A stop was a necessary part of any trip to the beach, and I rarely walked out without a bag full of books and periodicals.

It wasn't a big store, nor did it have a picturesque location. It was a bland storefront in a strip-mall, located next to a chain grocery store. It wasn't the store. It was what was in the store. Which was (stand by for the big surprise...) books.

Okay, it wasn't just that. It had new books. Every single week. Hot-off-the-presses books, mostly paperbacks, just the thing for a beach read. Most of the paperbacks were displayed face-out on racks along the side walls for easy browsing. Even better, new releases were on the floor below the racks so you couldn't miss them. Sure, this runs contrary to the logic that puts new books at the top, but it worked. The latest thing was there, and easy to find.

They weren't snotty either. They had a rich stock of best-sellers, thrillers, trashy-beach books, and good sections for all the genres, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, western, horror, you-name-it.

Oh sure, that wasn't all the store carried. They had a small but rich assortment of hard-covers and trades, fiction and non-fiction, children's books, an old-fashioned comic-spinner rack (the kind that collectors hate because they crease the comics, but which are great for kids who might actually read a comic for pleasure). a huge magazine section (another good source of beach reading), and a few gifts and cards.

They also had a few of those things that people think of when they think of indie bookstores. They had a nice little rack for local authors that was always well-stocked, and another one for staff picks and recommended reads. They hand-sold books, and were always glad to recommend an author or book in any given genre.

They also had a small blocked off corner for "adult" magazines. I never shopped back there (you believe me, right?), but it was somehow reassuring. I always figured a news-dealer that didn't traffic in material that was offending somebody just wasn't doing its part for the First Amendment, and was probably incomplete in other important areas as well.

Near as I could tell, they did a brisk business. There were always people in the store when I went in there, and the register was always busy. There were even lines sometimes.

What the store had, and I think this was key, was energy. The pulp and newsprint were always fresh, and smelled that way. It was exciting to go into the store on a shipment day, when the new books or periodicals were being unboxed and shelved. Often I'd hover around the magazine racks, waiting to see if the latest issue of one of my favorite magazines was coming out. Every week you'd go to scan the racks for your favorite authors and genres, and never were you disappointed. There was always something new and interesting, even if it wasn't what you went in looking for.

I've never seen anything like it, before or since, in such a small town. I was reminded of some of the big cities I'd lived in, the huge corner newsstands in Los Angeles, the huge Paperback City store in North Hollywood, the seedy-but-has-everything Magazine City in downtown Seattle. Most of these places were dirtier and colder and less refined than our little bookstore, but the buzz was there, and they shared another important characteristic: turnover. Most things moved, one way or another. If they didn't sell, then they were gone.

I'm an author, and I know, I know. If there's one word in the English language we writers hate, it's strip, at least where it's not being applied to an attractive member of the opposite sex (or same, if that's the way you play it).

Stripping, for those of you who don't know, is the process of getting credit on unsold paperbacks and periodicals. The book (or magazine, or comic, but what we complain about are the books) isn't returned. Only the cover is ripped off and returned for credit. The body of the item is (theoretically, that's another story) destroyed. It's a wasteful system, one rooted in history more than business logic, and one that authors just hate. A stripped book is not only unsold, not only returned for credit (and thus taken out of your royalties) it can't be reshipped or resold at any price. It not only isn't sold, it's an anti-sale.

One of the reasons that people like indie bookstores is that, in theory anyway, they don't strip as much. They keep back-lists on the shelves, and give books time to sell. They hand-sell good books that aren't from big-name authors, and aren't fortunate enough to make the Times best-seller list.

Like I said, theory. And at this little bookstore, there was a little truth to it. They shelved back-lists, for top authors and favorites anyway. They kept smaller authors they liked around for a while. But money and space were finite, and things got stripped.

Every. Single. Week.

See, there are places where stripping makes sense: places with high traffic and high volume. Places where people go to look for something new and fun to read. Places like our little store.

It was harsh but true, and while the writer in me would sometimes cringe (especially when it was one of my books), as a reader I loved the place. It was actually a factor in my decision to move to town.

So what happened?

Well, I'm unclear on the details. As I recall, the out-of-town owners sold-out, and it was bought by a well-meaning couple who clearly weren't cut out to run a bookstore. They didn't last long. Just long enough to mess up the stock and chase off a bunch of the staff.

They wanted to sell out, and when that didn't happen, planned to close.

Then a white-knight appeared in the form of a true book-lover. A guy who runs several used bookstores in the area, stores that are still open. There are good stores, and his flagship store is world-class, one of those places a book-lover can wander for hours through the maze-like stacks and never see everything.

But the trouble was, he loved books too much to run a new bookstore. He never stripped anything. The magazine second, already reduced, got smaller still. The adult section disappeared. The wall racks gave way to shelves to make room for the rapidly growing stock of dated (and eventually yellowing) paperbacks. Staff morale was low, and turnover rapid. Various other things were tried, more gifts and cards, games, more comics (but not enough to be a real comic store), music, a bigger kid's section, but nothing seemed to take hold. The foot traffic wasn't there to support it, because people weren't coming back as often.

I found myself going in less and less often. Once a month would catch the new magazines, and there weren't many of those that interested me any more. I stopped looking at the paperbacks. Of course, they were still happy to special order, but without the browsing experience to fuel purchases, I didn't do it often.

It was depressing. Nothing new to browse, and the new releases I'd heard about weren't going to be there. Maybe in the grocery-store next door...

It's sad when the book department at a grocery store starts to look better than a "real" bookstore.

Towards the end, the shelves thinned out as the old stock was presumably sold or stripped, but the money apparently wasn't there to restock. Books were face-out on the shelves, and got further and further apart. Used stock was moved in from other stores to fill the shelves. Even the reduced magazine section was getting thin. Hours were cut back.

There were "business for sale" signs in the windows, but it was hard to imagine what there was to buy. The stock was old and picked over, the traffic gone, the staff decimated, the reputation tarnished beyond repair. The death-spiral was solidly confirmed by then.

A couple weeks ago, while shopping for groceries, I happened to glance over and see the storefront dark and empty. I went over and examined the sign on the door. It had been closed for almost two weeks, and though I shop for groceries next door three or four times a week, I hadn't noticed.

Our little town is full of writers, and near as I can tell, none of them in my circle had noticed either. We all order our books on-line now, or drive to chain stores in the bigger towns in the valley 60 miles away, or go to indie-monster Powell's Books in Portland a couple hours from here.

I was sad, but hardly surprised. Clearly the book-loving-owner was just riding out the lease. He had loved a once-great store to death.

This isn't intended to be critical of the guy who bought the store. He's a neighbor of mine, and a good guy, and he still has those great used stores. It would have died a lot sooner without his intervention, and he tried to make it a success the best way he knew how. God knows how much money he lost in the deal, and I'm certainly not privy to all the many things behind-the-scenes that may have contributed to the store's slow demise.

But it's difficult to see how he could have ever succeeded because of that one blind spot of his. He couldn't strip books, and without that, the store could never again flourish.

Let that be a lesson. Independent book stores aren't magic fairy-lands of literature and enlightenment. They're businesses, and to succeed, they have to be run as such.

Chain book stores didn't kill our nifty little bookshop. We don't have any within 60 miles. Wal-Mart didn't kill it. It's 30 miles to the nearest big-box store. Amazon didn't kill it. Its troubles were apparent long before Amazon was a significant factor.

Management decisions killed it, plain and simple. Decisions that were well-intended, and right minded, and intended to be charitable to authors. Decisions that were still wrong.

The store is gone now, and it isn't coming back, nor is there likely to be anything to replace it. I order on-line, and I look forward to out-of-town trips where I can go to a large book-store and browse (as good as Amazon is in many respects, it has never replicated the book browsing experience).

I miss the magazines more than anything, but magazines are on the decline. Many of the more obscure magazines I used to enjoy have died, and with others, the internet provides more useful and current content. The more popular ones are cheaper to subscribe to, often at a fraction of the newsstand price, and increasingly that's just what I'm doing.

But to be honest, I suspect even this is short-term. Electronic book-readers are getting attractive, and I fully expect most print magazines to go the way of the dodo in only a few years. I recently subscribed to a magazine for three years (they were practically giving it away) and wondered if my need for a print version would run out before the subscription did.

Books are still with us though, for a while anyway, and independent stores have to depend on them to survive. Much as we rail against the return system and stripping, as illogical as it is, if we were somehow to end it today, it's the independent stores, the small stores, that would suffer the most. Chain stores have the size, the volume, the financial resources to soldier on through, but the marginal little stores like ours won't. Let our store serve as an example, and a warning.

Our beloved little store is gone, and it isn't coming back. Nostalgia is all we have left, and that doesn't pay the rent.

But some days, in some ways, stripping books does.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Countdown to Nowhere

(This is a follow-up post to yesterday's "Buzz Off" which concerns astronaut Buzz Aldrin's recent statements that shows like Star Trek led to the decline of support for the space program. If you haven't read it, go there first.)

I've gotten a lot of support and "attaboys" from people who read "Buzz Off," but it turns out I didn't win over everyone. Fact is, I thought this over pretty carefully, and there's a lot of stuff I DIDN'T put in the original post, because I didn't think it was necessary given the basic
facts. More would have just been clutter.

But since the facts weren't as obvious as I supposed, let's look at another major
problem with the Buzz Aldrin theory. I don't think the historical time-line supports it.

At first glance, though, you might think the dates line up well. Star Trek was on TV from September 1966 through September 1969. The collapse of the space program's support is really centered around 1970. (The live TV broadcast from Apollo 13 wasn't covered by any of the major networks live, and it flew in April 1970. Apollo 20 was canceled in January of 1970. Two more Apollo missions were canceled in September of 1970.)

So the dates seem close, but I don't think it holds up to scrutiny.

First of all, remember that Star Trek was a failure in its broadcast run. It was nearly canceled in September of 1968 (while Apollo 8 had the world's attention, and Apollo 11, which drove the country (and the world) into a frenzy was nine months away. In fact, the decision to pull the plug on Star Trek had to have been made just about the time Apollo 11 landed, and the program was at the peak of its popularity and public interest.

Star Trek REALLY didn't take off until it was in syndication and college kids started watching it. I don't have a good date for that, but I suspect we're talking 1971 or 1972, when the smoking gun had long-ago gone off.

But the decisions to pull the trigger on that gun had to be made earlier.

Congressional support had to deteriorate sometime well before the cuts started, and the decision not to cut-in live on Apollo 13 probably resulted from viewership numbers on Apollo 12, which flew in November of 1969.

Of course, Apollo 12 blew out its TV camera shortly after landing, and that probably accounts for a lot of any ratings tumble. You can hardly blame that on Star Trek. (Ironically, almost without exception, Star Trek never showed TV cameras being taken along by its explorers.)

In any case, if Star Trek somehow poisoned the U.S. public on the space program, it did it as a low-rated show with a limited audience. And indications are that, during both first-run and in its re-run "boom" period, the audience for Star Trek largely consisted of people under 21. The voting age was still 21 at this time, and wasn't lowered to 18 until July of 1971. So as far as political influence, it's hard to see how it ever could have had any significant impact at that point in time.

The first evidence that Star Trek fans had political clout didn't come until the first Space Shuttle was renamed ENTERPRISE, following a letter-writing campaign to the Ford White-house by fans. I don't have a date for this, but it happened sometime between when President Ford took office in 1974 and the Enterprise roll-out in 1976. Since construction didn't start until June of 1974, and its original name was "Constitution," and Ford took office in August of '74, it would not likely have been any earlier than that. It's very likely that the reduction in the voting age was a factor here.

Regardless of the date, this hardly supports any lack of support or interest in the real space program by Star Trek fans. Quite the contrary.

On the other hand, NASA's internal grumbling and foot-dragging on the matter is a fine example of how they loved to shoot their public image in the foot. Here was a great opportunity to connect their mission with the public, and rather than exploit it to the fullest, they minimized it as much as possible.

I just don't see any evidence here that Star Trek harmed the space program in any way.

Of course, Aldrin wasn't specific that he was talking about Star Trek, but there just aren't many other on-air TV candidates for killing support of the Space Program.

Lost in Space started (and ended) a year earlier than Star Trek, and had a much bigger audience than Star Trek, but there was no beaming there. There were aliens (often very silly aliens) and interstellar travel (though the science was so weak that I don't recall any kind of faster-than-light drive ever being mentioned). But most of the signature hardware, robots, space-walks, jet packs, surface crawlers, and a very LM-like landing vehicle, were all right off the NASA drawing boards at that time. It was more futuristic and advanced, but in its own way, much more realistic than Trek.

The British series UFO (which featured a modest and fairly believable lunar base) didn't reach U.S. syndication until 1971 and 72. The follow-up Space 1999 with a much bigger Moon base (and some screamingly bad science) didn't show up until 1975.

Other than that, I can't think of anything (other than some Saturday morning cartoons) that qualifies. Feel free to correct me if I've missed something significant.

Meanwhile, all the stuff that Aldrin frets about, teleportation, faster-than-light travel, and so on, had been popular staples of print and comic science fiction since at least the 1930s. Somehow, the U.S. space program got off the ground anyhow (mostly by people who had at
some point read plenty of the stuff.

And we can't ignore movies. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were rocketing off to alien worlds in theaters as early as 1936 (and on radio starting in 1932). Heck, even Duck Dodgers used a teleporter in his first 1953 cartoon appearance!

None of the offending concepts or devices was invented by Star Trek, or any TV show. It predates broadcast television entirely.

Really, looking at the evidence, if the time-line supports anything at all, it's the idea that cutbacks in the Apollo program (and news coverage of same) may have contributed to the renewed popularity of Star Trek in syndication in the early 70s.

If the real space program wasn't going to give us the stars (or even the Moon again, or Mars) anytime soon, we'd watch Star Trek and dream until it did.

That just makes more sense than the idea that B led to A.

But there's a subtext in the time-line the supports more significant factors.

At least some of the press (and the public's) interest in covering the Apollo program has to be traced to the camera failure on Apollo 12. Apollo 13 might have turned that around, but it never made it to the moon, and was covered for entirely different reasons.

Support for Apollo in congress was weakening by early 1970, when Apollo 20 was canceled. The next two cancellations happened after the near loss of Apollo 13. By then, the risks were obvious, and there's no political stock to be gained in backing a losing horse. Better to end the program a winner.

It was also obvious by then that the press was more interested in covering failures in space than successes. Lose, lose. Not much here you can blame on Star Trek.

Combine this with the growing cynicism about government, and the huge cost of the Vietnam war (which lead directly to the cancellation of the Air Force's manned space program before it even started), and there just wasn't anything to be gained politically by backing NASA. Again, not Star Trek's fault.

The facts aren't there. The logic isn't there. Star Trek didn't do it. No science-fiction TV show did. If anything, Star Trek has been a positive influence on people's interest in space.

So, anybody want to start a write-in campaign to name the first, manned, Orion crew-capsule to reach orbit (no test models this time!), Enterprise?

More writings about the Moon:

Closely related to this topic, I have a couple of previous posts about the Moon and the Apollo program that you should check out:

Buy Me The Moon
Why the Apollo program didn't cost nearly as much as most people think it did, and how we might trade certain -- luxuries -- for a Moon base or a Mars program.

1200 Days On Mars
People say there's no reason to return to the Moon. "Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt." Well, we haven't been there, haven't done that, and we don't even know where the tee-shirts are sold. How we've barely touched the Moon, and how it compares to our current unmanned explorations of Mars.